The NFC North and NFC West are weeks away from being decided. The AFC North, AFC West and NFC East are all close races as the weather turns colder. Week 11 of the 2011 NFL season brings us must-win games for some, while others are looking for their first loss, or perhaps their first win.
It's time to break down the Week 11 schedule, picking the winners for each game and telling you how each team can win the game.
When New York Has the Ball
The New York Jet offense has struggled to get on track all season, and it'll face an underrated Denver Bronco defense in this one.
The Jets would ideally open up the game with power running up the middle of the Denver defense. The strength of this Denver defense is on the edges, and there is room to run up the gut. New York has a power runner in Shonn Greene who should be able to get the job done here.
The Jets will want to limit Mark Sanchez this week after another bad outing against the New England Patriots in Week 10. Denver has a talented edge rush and experience in the secondary to at least control the New York offense.
When Denver Has the Ball
The Denver Broncos managed to win a game last weekend by throwing just eight passes in the entire game. They won't be able to do that this week and pull out a win. The New York defense is much better than the units faced in Miami and Kansas City. Rex Ryan will have his linebackers ready to shut down the run and has the cornerbacks to load up the box with nine players.
Denver can try to run its option offense early, but I'm willing to bet the Jets can shut down the veer after seeing it on film the last two weeks.
Prediction: New York 28, Denver 3
When Carolina Has the Ball
The Carolina Panther offense has been a good balance of deep passes to Steve Smith and a sound running game from DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, with Stewart being the workhorse for most of the season. The run game should be there this week.
Detroit is starting to come unraveled as the season progresses. After a Week 5 loss to the 49ers the team hasn't looked the same. The Lions are showing it on the field, as they continue to lose and also show classless play after the whistle. This is a team in desperate need of a win.
Cam Newton hasn't seen a defense with this much speed and aggression all season. If he can remain patient, there will be running room once the defensive line gets its initial push. That's where Newton could be most dangerous this week.
When Detroit Has the Ball
It looks like Detroit will be without Jahvid Best again this week, once again putting pressure on Matthew Stafford and the passing game. It will be interesting to see Chris Gamble locked up on Calvin Johnson and to see how the Panthers react to a wide receiver with this much size.
The best matchup for Detroit will be tight end Brandon Pettigrew against a young linebacker crew. Pettigrew should be able to find openings all day against this back seven.
Carolina will be able to pressure Matthew Stafford if Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy play up to their potential. Both have the speed to be troublemakers up against a weak Lions offensive line.
Prediction: Detroit 31, Carolina 24
When Jacksonville Has the Ball
The only name you need to know this week is Maurice Jones-Drew. The Jaguar offense hasn't quite warmed up with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert running the show, and with the first-year player under center the team is leaning more and more on MJD to carry the load. He's getting it done too.
The Browns defense is underrated, with strong players at defensive tackle and the opportunistic D'Qwell Jackson at middle linebacker. I like the matchup of the front seven in Cleveland against the Jaguar run game, but I see Gabbert hooking up with his young receivers against a defense that won't be able to force him into mistakes by hurrying the pocket.
When Cleveland Has the Ball
In what may have been his most impressive performance of the season, quarterback Colt McCoy showed the toughness and accuracy that had many labeling him the future of the club last season. McCoy will face a much tougher defense this week as the Browns run into an athletic, experienced Jacksonville defense.
Without Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty, the Browns are relying on a street free agent and even tight ends to run the ball. The outlook is as bleak as it sounds.
Jacksonville should have no trouble getting a pass rush against this offensive line and will be able to let linebackers Daryl Smith, Clint Session and Paul Posluszny dominate the line.
Prediction: Jacksonville 23, Cleveland 14
When Buffalo Has the Ball
The Buffalo Bills will look to right their problems this week against a Miami Dolphins team that has won two straight games. Buffalo will lean on a heavy dose of Fred Jackson to open up the offense for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who proved in Week 10 that he's more game manager than game-breaker.
The Bills have talent to get the ball in space and make plays. Fitzpatrick should look to get the ball out to Steve Johnson and David Nelson, but to get an advantage against talented Miami cornerbacks they'll need to set up the run game and force the Miami safeties into the box. Jackson will be the key this week. The Bills cannot afford to fall behind early.
When Miami Has the Ball
Brandon Marshall should be a big Matt Moore fan. With Moore under center Marshall has enjoyed two very good games, and the Dolphins are 2-0.
Moore will have his chances this week against a Buffalo defense that struggles on every level on the outside. The team needs help at defensive end, outside linebacker and cornerback before it can be considered an elite unit. The Dolphins have the speed to exploit the Buffalo defense, but they'll have to find an answer for Nick Barnett, Marcell Dareus and George Wilson before they can start counting their wins.
Miami should work to get the ball out on swings to Reggie Bush and hope to pull Nelson and Jairus Byrd to the box, which should open things up for Marshall running deep.
Prediction: Buffalo 28, Miami 24
When Tampa Bay Has the Ball
The trio of offensive stars who powered the Buccaneers to a 10-win season in 2010 haven't been the same one year later. Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams have all had less than impressive seasons as Tampa struggles to live up to the expectations its 2010 season placed on it.
Things won't get better this week, as the Bucs face a defense in Green Bay that has forced much better quarterbacks into mistakes. The Dom Capers defense lives on forcing turnovers and ending drives with big plays. They'll have a field day against Freeman, who has been prone to interceptions in 2011.
Whatever you do, don't trust the Tampa offensive line to protect against the likes of Clay Matthews and Desmond Bishop. Green Bay will live in the Buccaneer backfield this week.
When Green Bay Has the Ball
Mid-November in Green Bay means cold weather with a great chance for snow each week. The Tampa offense isn't built for cold-weather games. The Packers are.
Green Bay has made it to 9-0 without having to rely on James Starks or Ryan Grant to carry the load. By the time the weather turns cold and the tundra in Lambeau becomes frozen, the Packers will have two fresh running backs to lean on. Honestly, it's brilliant how it has limited their use early in the season.
Tampa will want to get as much pressure as possible on Aaron Rodgers, who has been as close to perfect as any quarterback has ever been through the first 10 weeks of the season.
Prediction: Green Bay 38, Tampa Bay 17
When Dallas Has the Ball
The Dallas Cowboy offense was damn near perfect in Week 10 against the Buffalo Bills. They'll see a much more solid defense on the road this week.
The Washington Redskin defense is loaded with talented edge players like Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. They have one of the better safeties in the league in LaRon Landry and cornerbacks who, while inconsistent, can make big plays. Washington's defense matches up better than you would think in this one.
Dallas needs to get Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray going early. The team has been winning with Murray leading the way, and his power running is opening up the deep game to Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson. That's what Washington can expect to see this week.
When Washington Has the Ball
Were it not for the Denver Broncos, it would be easy to say the Washington Redskins have the least talented offense in the NFL. As it is now, they can at least say they have the least talented offense in the NFC.
The combination of Rex Grossman and John Beck at quarterback proves right the old saying, "If you have two quarterbacks, you have none." Washington's offense has been anemic all season, especially once injuries started robbing its talent on the line and in the backfield.
Washington shouldn't expect to do much against Rob Ryan's defense. The Cowboys are firing on all cylinders and are getting better each week on defense.
Prediction: Dallas 27, Washington 13
When Oakland Has the Ball
The Oakland Raider offense was on fire last week, pulling away from the San Diego Charger defense and taking the lead in the AFC West. The catalyst to the offensive revitalization has been quarterback Carson Palmer.
Acquired in a trade with Cincinnati roughly one month ago, Palmer has improved each week and is becoming more comfortable with the playbook and his receivers. That's bad news for the Vikings, who have struggled in the back seven all season.
The Minnesota defense is very good in pass-rushing, but it struggles in coverage and is giving up gaping holes in the run game. Without solid play at defensive tackle and linebacker, Minnesota is prone to giving up big plays. That's what Oakland will look to do this week as Palmer and his offense continue to click.
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The Minnesota offense is improving as rookie quarterback Christian Ponder becomes more acclimated to the offense. With a running back as great as Adrian Peterson in the backfield, and facing one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, the Vikings have a chance this week if only because of Peterson.
Ponder will be pressured heavily this week from an active Oakland defensive line. The Raiders may give up big plays on the ground, but their ability to attack the backfield and make plays on the quarterback will give Ponder fits for 60 minutes.
Prediction: Oakland 35, Minnesota 20
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
The Cincinnati Bengal offense was almost good enough to topple the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. They'll need to bring their "A" game to have a shot against the Baltimore Ravens on the road.
Cincinnati matches up well against this Baltimore secondary. I like the prospect of getting Jerome Simpson, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham open against this secondary. To do that the Bengals need to convince the Bengals that Cedric Benson is a real threat to run the ball.
If last week is any indication, the run game will be there. Marshawn Lynch put up over 100 yards on the Raven defense, and Benson has both more talent and a better offensive line.
When Baltimore Has the Ball
The Cincinnati defense took a huge hit when it learned cornerback Leon Hall would be out for the rest of the season with an Achilles injury. Without Hall in the secondary, Baltimore will have room to work. It is worth noting that the Cincinnati defense played well against the Steeler wide receivers, who are much more talented than Baltimore's group overall.
Baltimore hasn't used Ray Rice up to his potential this year, but this is the week to unleash him. Cincinnati excels at rushing the passer, and with Joe Flacco proving he's not ready to handle a pass rush and distribute the football, the Ravens will want to keep the ball in Rice's able hands.
Prediction: Baltimore 24, Cincinnati 20
When Seattle Has the Ball
The Seattle Seahawks are at their best when Marshawn Lynch has room to run and can get 20-plus carries. To do that, Seattle cannot afford to fall behind early in the game.
Seattle played well last week, but mostly due to the play of its defense early. The offense will have to come out firing to hope for a repeat in St. Louis this weekend. I would expect a heavy dose of Lynch, but Seattle should also look to get the wide receivers going early. I would take my chances with Tarvaris Jackson to Sidney Rice or Mike Williams deep on the first series, as St. Louis is very weak in the secondary.
The Rams need to get pressure on Jackson and keep the heat turned up. Still a young quarterback, Jackson will fold if hit early enough.
When St. Louis Has the Ball
There will be no excuse here if Steven Jackson doesn't get 25 carries this week. The Rams know they can line up and beat the Seahawks off the ball. There's no reason to not line up and try to physically dominate the defensive line of Seattle.
The Rams are getting better play from Sam Bradford, and given one more week to get comfortable with Brandon Lloyd at wide receiver, I'm expecting a good week from the Rams' franchise quarterback.
Seattle may be without Kam Chancellor, a hard-hitting safety who has been very solid in coverage this year. Earl Thomas is an elite safety, but he's a coverage guy and won't be a factor in stopping Steven Jackson.
Prediction: St. Louis 31, Seattle 28
When Arizona Has the Ball
Whether it's John Skelton or Kevin Kolb under center this week, the Arizona Cardinals' chances are slim against a suffocating San Francisco 49er defense.
The Cardinals have talented players, but getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald with Carlos Rogers blanketing him will not be easy. It'll get harder when you consider Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith will be breathing down the neck of the quarterback behind one of the NFL's worst offensive lines.
The 49ers are a great matchup this week against the Cardinals. Man for man, there is not one good matchup for the Cardinal offensive line.
When San Francisco Has the Ball
Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter should see a heavy workload this week, as the 49ers should jump out to an early lead and look to coast to a victory. Gore may even be out this week as he nurses knee and ankle injuries, as this is a game the 49ers could win without their veteran back.
The passing game in San Francisco has gotten better week to week. The play of Alex Smith and Michael Crabtree is giving the 49ers a legitimate passing game to go along with a tough run game. With Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Braylon Edwards, the 49ers have a scary lineup of athletic receivers who can make plays downfield.
Arizona will need to get as much pressure off the edge as possible. Sam Acho could see a lot of work this weekend as the Cardinals try to force Alex Smith into mistakes.
Prediction: San Francisco 31, Arizona 18
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Chris Johnson finally broke out this week with a 100-yard day against the woeful Carolina Panther defense. Johnson will meet a tougher front seven this week, but he'll still have his shots.
The Atlanta defense is talented, but it is inconsistent and will give up big plays. I like Johnson to warm up the offense here, but Damian Williams could be the player due for the biggest game. With Thomas DeCoud playing poorly in deep coverage, Williams will be able to pressure the defense. If I'm Tennessee's offensive coordinator, I'm sending Williams deep early and often to pull DeCoud out of the box.
Tennessee's offense matches up well against Atlanta if Matt Hasselbeck can get to his second and third receivers. If Atlanta puts Brent Grimes on Williams, it will be a long day for Tennessee.
When Atlanta Has the Ball
The Atlanta Falcons' play-calling cost them the game last week against New Orleans. They'll look for redemption this weekend.
Atlanta is loaded on offense, and if it gets Julio Jones back from a hamstring injury, it will want to go three wide and look for the best option on zone routes against a Tennessee secondary that isn't deep enough to keep up with the Atlanta passing attack.
A good matchup for Atlanta will be its second wide receiver against Jason McCourty. If it's Jones, look for Matt Ryan to go there deep on the first series. Should it be Harry Douglas, the option routes will be open underneath.
Prediction: Atlanta 28, Tennessee 20
When San Diego Has the Ball
The San Diego offense has failed this season, regressing as the offensive line underwhelms and the play of Philip Rivers has analysts, fans and coaches wondering what went wrong.
San Diego's offense will find no relief this week against the Chicago Bear defense in Soldier Field. The Bears are improving each week it seems, combining a heavy pass rush from Julius Peppers and Henry Melton with outstanding linebacker play from Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
If there is a weakness for Chicago, it is at cornerback. The Chargers will have their chances to get downfield against this secondary, as long as Rivers has time to get rid of the ball.
When Chicago Has the Ball
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Sound logic, and a philosophy Mike Martz should subscribe to this week. The Bears have won with an offense centered around Matt Forte, and that should be exactly what they do this week.
I'm not sold on the San Diego defense in any way, but there is definitely a bigger opportunity to run the ball against this defensive line. Forte should enjoy a career day against the Chargers. I would put him down for 200 yards all-purpose, easy.
Prediction: Chicago 31, San Diego 20
When Philadelphia Has the Ball
Michael Vick could miss time this week with broken ribs. With him the Eagles always have a chance to win. Without him, and with Vince Young under center, this game is heavily favored for the New York Giants.
Even with Vick, the Eagles haven't been able to find a rhythm. Vick needs a focused DeSean Jackson and a healthy Jeremy Maclin if the team can hope to find a win this week. A loss means the end of the Eagles' playoff hopes, as it will give them their seventh loss of the season.
The Giants and their aggressive pass rush should get after Vick and create opportunities for their active outside linebackers. I like the matchup of the Giants secondary against the Eagles wide receivers for New York. Corey Webster and Aaron Ross are playing top-notch football.
When New York Has the Ball
It's easy to see the Giants offense misses Ahmad Bradshaw at running back. If they can get Bradshaw back healthy this weekend, they'll look to ground and pound the Philadelphia defense. The Eagles have given up run after run all season to teams with much less talent than the Giants.
Eli Manning shouldn't be a factor this week. If the Giants are put in a position to rely on Manning to win, I fully expect them to lose. Manning has played well this season, but the Philadelphia cornerbacks are a dangerous matchup against the young New York receivers. Manning should limit his touches and hope to rely on the run game for a win.
Prediction: New York 31, Philadelphia 28
* Prediction may change as injury report comes out
When Kansas City Has the Ball
It's been learned that quarterback Matt Cassel will miss the season with injury, opening the door for Tyler Palko and Ricky Stanzi at quarterback for the Chiefs. As sad as this is, it's a fitting end to a season that saw the loss of Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and now Cassel.
The Chiefs will be in way over their heads against the New England defense. The Patriots clicked on Sunday against the New York Jets, shutting down an offense much better than the one they'll see this weekend.
The Chiefs' best chance is to spread the field and let the quarterback air it out. This will result in turnovers, but you can also hope to get a few deep passes behind a shaky New England secondary.
When New England Has the Ball
Tom Brady shouldn't lose sleep this week worrying about the Kansas City defense. Even with his old coach Romeo Crennel running the defense in Kansas City, there's nothing here to keep Brady from 300 yards and four touchdowns.
The Patriots tight ends should have a great day against the Chiefs minus Eric Berry. Both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be able to find matchups as the Chiefs rush Tamba Hali and try to cover with stiff safeties and overmatched linebackers. One player who could keep up, Derrick Johnson, is needed to shut down the run. He may still match up in man coverage on one tight end.
No matter what the Chiefs scheme, New England isn't stopping until it reaches the playoffs.
Prediction: New England 45, Kansas City 13